Q&A with Dondi Dahlin by Za-Beth
Dondi Dahlin 2009 Interview with Dondi Dahlin
Za-Beth: What first influence did you have for the dance ? Dondi Dahlin: I didn’t feel the allure of Middle Eastern dance until after several years of studying and performing. I was more excited by Polynesian dance which I had been taking classes in since the age of 4. But, when my sister and I were young teenagers in 1980 we moved with our mom from Southern California to Oregon where Polynesian dance classes and venues were obsolete. We had to find another dance form that embraced our full and curvy figures…we just loved to dance but we weren’t good at flitting around the room in tutu’s. Luckily, there were many Middle Eastern dance teachers in Oregon who all seemed to move north from San Francisco and hail from the days of “Bal Anat” and Jamila Salimpour. Za-Beth: Who were your first professional influences ? Dondi Dahlin: There was a dancer in Southern California named Sultana who used to blow my mind. No one has ever come close to her for me…not any professional dancer of today. She was the ultimate belly dancer who conveyed an entire culture through her movements. There was another California dancer named Aurelia who I saw in a Bay Area competition in the early 90’s and she had great impact on me. Both dancers had incredible stage presence that was REAL and genuine…not phony. When I was becoming professional in the late 1980’s I used many of Delilah’s (Seattle) VHS tapes to study with. She was the first dancer who I remember marketing professional video tapes. I learned a lot from her including all of the basic rhythms. Za-Beth: What was your first professional gig ? Dondi Dahlin: A very posh Arabic party at a highrise penthouse suite in Beverly Hills. All of the Arabs were millionaires and they had hired Playboy bunnies and centerfolds to “entertain” them for the night. I was the opening act. They were total gentleman and said they wanted to see some true “art” before the evening got underway with “other” stuff. They fed me caviar and shrimp and told me I would feel more comfortable leaving after my performance, rather than staying to see what happened next. That was 1989 and I charged $125 for 20 minutes. I could have charged a lot more. It is amazing to me that some dancers charge LESS than this in 2009. My next big professional gig was dancing for Omar Sharif on an island that he owned. It was one of the most incredible nights of my life.
Za-Beth: Where has this profession taken you ? Dondi Dahlin: All over the world…the South Pacific, Europe, Spain, Africa, India… Many people know me for my career with The Belly Dance Superstars and my portrayal of Marily Monroe as a belly dancer. But, for me that was small potato’s compared to dancing in the Middle East. Dancing in Jordan, Dubai, Lebanon, India, Africa and Egypt is what opened my soul as a dancer and purveyor of this art form and its history and impact on the world. Za-Beth: How has the business changed for you ? Dondi Dahlin: It has changed so much that I feel satisfied leaving it now (plus I have a brand new 2 month old baby boy). I have done everything I wanted to do in the business from dancing for celebrities, to being featured in videos, to a career in the Middle East and even working for Miles Copeland. I have completed a goal and a chapter in my life that I set over a decade ago. This is not to say that I will leave it 100%. I still love the dance. But, I don’t dance now unless I really relish the venue or the host. Even though I have done choreography and fusion, I am not fond of a world that is mostly choreography and fusion (and dancing to cd’s). I came from a world of live bands, improvisation and Middle Eastern Dance from its roots. The dance is not Middle Eastern anymore. Perhaps it had to change for America to accept it. Za-Beth: What changes have you seen in the dance over the years? Dondi Dahlin: Everything listed above. Today dancers aren’t comfortable unless they are choreographed and can use their CD. In my opinion, the heart of Middle Eastern dance lies in improvisation and the language between the dancer and the live musician. Canned music and choreographed dancing is void of what is so unique about Middle Eastern dance. But, live bands are almost extinct in most places. When I taught in Iceland in 2006 the students had been training for years but had never heard or experienced a “live” Middle Eastern musician. Also, everything today is slick and polished and marketed. Who doesn’t have a DVD? Every one and their belly dancing dog has a DVD. This used to be an underground dance…a little secretive and mysterious. Today it is competitive beyond belief and with that the look and feel of the dance and the dancers has changed. The dance that was once, “by women, for women” (and for all different shapes of women) is gone. The circles of females supporting each other are hard to find. Now it is all about who has the latest trendy move, who has the most gorgeous, svelte figure and who is a “superstar.”
Za-Beth: What do you enjoy dancing to most today ? Dondi Dahlin: LIVE ARABIC MUSIC whether it is Oum Kalthoum, Farid Al Atrash, Abdel Halim or Amr Diab. If it is live you will see me come into my bliss. I am a different dancer when I dance to live music and will happily admit that I am a great dancer if the music is live. Unfortunately, if you see me dance to a cd, it will not be my best. Whether it is live or canned I almost always dance improvisational style. This is one reason BDSS was so difficult for me.
Za-Beth: Is there anything you’d like to add to this interview? Dondi Dahlin: Yes! How happy I am to be teaching and performing here in Massachusets with my sister, Titanya and with Zabeth as our host. I met Zabeth about 18 years ago when we were performing at a Persian restaurant in South Florida. I fell in love with her style and who she is as a woman. I am so happy we are reconnected!